“Transition Streets.” It sounds like some trendy Broadway musical, or perhaps a modern-day halfway house for folks moving from hardship to security.
According to Ed Clay, cofounder of Transition Sonoma Valley, the colorfully urban-sounding title actually describes a citizen training program for small groups of neighbors, committed to making better decisions about energy-consumption and its effect on climate change. Originally developed in the UK, the grassroots curriculum was designed to educate and encourage positive environmental action on a street-by-street, family-by-family basis.
“Transition Streets,” says Clay, “is about creating closer community and saving money, but mostly about finding ways to reduce our carbon footprint.”
Carbon footprints. Another colorful term with a street-level vibe, it describes the specific amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds that are released into the atmosphere by the consumption of fossil-fuels. The more fossil-fuel-derived energy one uses, or is used to support that person’s consumption, the larger the carbon footprint.
“Every decision we make has some effect,” says Clay. “Transition streets is a way to learn what those effects are, and what we can do, as individuals and as neighbors, to make the right decisions. Then, as neighbors, we make a commitment to do something specific by the next meeting, and then we come back and report on how it went.”
According to Clay – whose neighborhood Transition Streets group is the first in the Valley to complete the seven-session program – these intimate coffee-klatch-style gatherings are a powerful step in a movement that began 10 years ago under the name of “transition towns.” The transition towns idea was developed in 2006 to encourage entire city populations to reconsider how their lifestyle choices are contributing to global warming. A project of the Transition Network, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to reducing the potentially devastating effects of climate change, transition towns began popping up in the United States in 2010.
To officially become a transition town, at least two people from that town must take a special training offered by the Transition Network. Several years ago, Clay, along with Tim Boeve and other locals, took the training and brought the transition towns concept to Sonoma, helping co-found Transition Sonoma Valley. Together, they established a website (transitionsonomavalley.org), began advocating for what Clay calls “a sensible local energy policy,” set up a series of public meetings, and promoted screenings of documentary films such as “Transition to a World Without Oil” and “The Economics of Happiness.”
Clay estimates that more than 1,000 people in town saw these movies. But he acknowledges that the effort, while positive, did not result in the widely popular carbon-reducing groundswell he was hoping for.
“Showing documentaries,” he now believes, “does not change people’s behavior. The most effective way to change people’s behavior is for people to see their friends and neighbors changing their own behavior.”
When the Transition Network first developed the transition streets curriculum – basically a guidebook with “lessons” on energy, water, waste, transportation and the like – Clay decided to introduce the idea to the neighbors on his Third Street East cul de sac. Out of 12 houses on his street, individuals from seven households said they’d like to participate. Though there have been a number of other transition streets groups in Sonoma County, Clay said his is the first in the Valley.